At Carlsbad Caverns

Yesterday we visited the Carlsbad Caverns National Park.  It’s located in a remote area near the southern border of New Mexico, so it takes an effort to get there.  We made a five-hour drive from Santa Fe to reach it — but it was definitely worth it.


We took the natural entrance to the cave, which requires you to walk down a steep series of switchbacks and drop hundreds of feet into the mouth of the cave.  (It’s easily doable, but if you’re queasy about heights, be sure to stick to the inside of the switchbacks.)  Once you leave the last rays of natural light, in the area shown above, you find yourself in a dimly lit fantasy land of astonishing rock formations ranging from the delicate, like the Doll’s Theater shown at the top of this post, to massive stalactites and stalagmites. 


And when you reach the Big Room, a colossal underground opening where the fabulous creations of nature are found around every corner, be prepared to spend some time just shaking your head in wonderment at it all.  Words can’t begin to describe it, and photos taken with a cell phone can’t really begin to capture the scale and intricacy and vastness of it all.  I’ve posted some photos merely to give an idea of what you’ll see on a visit, but understand that they convey only a tiny fraction of what it is like to be there.


And, after a time, a certain hush seems to fall over it all.  Even rambunctious kids begin to talk in whispers as they walking along the path, and there’s not much need for shushing rangers, either.  Standing in the cool dimness — the Caverns maintain a constant temperature in the 50s– with the vaulted ceiling far above, and towering statuary-like figures everywhere you look, the experience is like being in a gothic cathedral . . . and who is loud in a church?


The Carlsbad Caverns are a world heritage site, drawing visitors from across the globe, and it’s not hard to see why.  It’s got to be one of the most spectacular bits of natural beauty you can find anywhere, as jaw-dropping in its way as the Grand Canyon or Mount Everest or the Great Barrier Reef.  

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Encino

We drove through Encino, New Mexico on our way to the Carlsbad Caverns.  Encino looks like it has fallen on hard times, and this ramshackle house, just about to collapse, seemed to characterize the town as a whole.  The house was so memorable on the way down that I was determined to take its photo on the trip back — and was happy to catch it during the magic hour just before sunset.

On The Road To Carlsbad

Route 285 is a straight shot.  You head directly due south, from the Santa Fe area through the ranch lands of New Mexico down to Carlsbad.  The road is pretty much straight as a die, as if it were drawn with a straight-edged ruler, like the border line of a state shown on a map.


At Clines Corners you stop, because everyone who drives Route 285 has to stop at Clines Corners.  It’s a way to relive the America of the Route 66 era.  You eat a hearty breakfast — the Truck Drivers’ Special is highly recommended– and you wander a bit through the massive “gift shop” area, marveling at who might actually collect thimbles representing each of the 50 states or Zippo lighters with NASCAR markings, or who might make an impulse purchase of “trophy husband” boxer shorts while at a roadside store in the middle of New Mexico.

And then it’s back on the road, motoring over the mostly dry and barren countryside, blessedly free of billboards but with not much else to see, either.  Scrubby trees, small, dessicated bushes, and spiny looking plants roll by outside the car window, with an occasional herd of cattle to break things up a bit.  Your eyes feast on every shade of brown you can imagine, and after a while the world becomes focused solely on the landscape and the road.  You wonder if that UFO crashed in Roswell because the aliens manning the craft were suffering from highway hypnosis.

At a roadside rest stop, there is a commissioned piece of public art that prominently features road signs — as well as a towering lance that is easily the tallest object on the horizon.  Why not?  On Route 285, it’s all about the road, the road, the road.

Nazis Under Antarctica

Ten years ago, satellite observations by NASA detected a gravitational anomaly in the Wilkes Land section of Antarctica.  The gravitational changes caused scientists to discover a massive impact crater and, at its center, a huge object buried under the Antarctica ice.  The object is more than 151 miles long and a half mile thick.

So . . . it’s an asteroid, right?  We know that, from time to time, Earth has been struck by asteroids, leaving impact craters scattered across the globe.  Some scientists believe that large asteroid strikes, and the impact they have had on the planet’s climate, are responsible for some of the mass extinctions seen in the fossil record.  An enormous asteroid striking Antarctica could be responsible for the great Permian-Triassic extinction event, when something happened that wiped out almost all of the plant and animal life on Earth, on both land and in the sea, about 250 million years ago.

Not so fast!  Ancient meteor strikes aren’t really all that interesting, are they?  I mean, that just makes this intriguing anomaly a super big rock buried in ice.  And in fact, when the massive object under the icy wastes of Wilkes Land was first discovered, nobody paid much attention to it.  But when a UFO hunting outfit recently posted a YouTube video about the Antarctica anomaly, suddenly the conspiratorially minded among us started to get interested.

So now the internet with abuzz with the possibility that the massive object could be an ancient UFO, or maybe an alien landing base.  Or the lost city of Atlantis!  Or the entrance to the creepy underworld lair called “Hollow Earth.”  Or — my favorite — a massive base secretly built by the Nazis where they planned to develop and use “flying saucers.”  Lucky for us that those inventive Nazis spent the time, money, and effort to build an enormous snow-encased base for flying saucers, when they could have used those resources, and those flying saucers, to avoid losing the war instead!

I think the possibility that we’ve located a gigantic asteroid that almost killed off every life form on Earth seems pretty interesting, but for some people nothing is as fascinating as speculating about Nazis and UFOs.

Skull Session

What’s the southwest without a few bleached cattle skulls to remind you of the death and starvation that characterized the settlement of the old west?  This place in Santa Fe had a good selection for those who want to have something creepy to hang on the wall of the great room of their ranch.  And here’s something interesting –the price varies based on horn size. This impressive fellow was cheaper than his neighbor because his horn size was sadly lacking.

Tree, Sky, And Shadow

The fine Georgia O’Keeffe museum in Santa Fe, New Mexico, teaches that beauty can be found just about anywhere — in skyscrapers, in flowers, in barns, in the rugged landscape of New Mexico . . . and in trees. So when I left the museum and saw this tree framed against the adobe walls of the museum, with the sunshine etching an intricate shadow on the wall, I had to let my inner O’Keeffe snap this photo.

Carrie Fisher

Carrie Fisher’s death yesterday, a few days after she suffered a heart attack on a trans-Atlantic flight, came as a terrible shock.  Fisher was only 60, and she had so much to offer to the world as a writer, actor, and advocate on mental health issues.

Fisher was great in The Blues Brothers and When Harry Met Sally, and she wrote a number of funny best-selling books, but of course she will always be remembered by many — including me — as Princess Leia of the original Star Wars films.  I’m sure that Fisher often bridled at her association with that gun-toting resistance leader with the fantastic and iconic hairstyle, but I’ll always believe that her depiction of Leia Organa was one of the things that fundamentally and forever shifted the kinds of roles that women played in Hollywood films.

Of course, women had always had some meaty roles, but in action films or sci-fi films women typically were the objects around which the action revolved, rather than the proponents of the action.  Not so with Leia Organa!  From the first moments of Star Wars she was the key driver of the plot, setting R2D2 off with the plans for the Death Star, standing toe to toe with Grand Moff Tarkin and Darth Vader, recruiting Luke and Obi-Wan Kenobi and Han Solo to the cause of the resistance, getting tortured and firing blasters and trading insults with the best of them.  (“Could somebody get this walking carpet out of my way?”)  Princess Leia was as far from the damsel in distress as you could get.  Sure, she ultimately fell for Han Solo — who wouldn’t? — but she was always ready to strangle Jabba the Hut or blast a squadron of imperial storm troopers on a moment’s notice.  Not every actor could pull off such a role, but Carrie Fisher did it flawlessly and convincingly.

Lots of people make movies that achieve enormous popularity, but then fade over time to the point where their roles are only dimly recalled and people wonder what all the fuss was about.  Not so with Carrie Fisher.  She was a true trailblazer, in her acting, in her writing, and in her frank and always humorous discussions about her struggles with her condition, her addictions, and her weight.  She touched more people than she perhaps ever realized.